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It’s called the CSI effect. Thanks to “CSI: Crime Scene Investigation” and its sister shows, jurors now expect forensic evidence so exact, so complete, and so quickly available that they will be told with certainty all the facts of any crime scene. A new exhibition at the National Library of Medicine, titled “Visible Proofs: Forensic Views of the Body,” serves as a pointed reality check. The exhibit, located on the National Institutes of Health campus in Bethesda, Md., details the history and science of forensic medicine, a branch of science that interprets the facts in civil or criminal law cases, particularly when a death is suspicious or unexplained. There is very little here that could be wrapped up in an hour of television drama. “Death is veiled to us,” says Michael Sappol, the exhibit’s curator. “It’s hard to show and hard to understand.” For lawyers eager to use the latest in sophisticated research to wow a jury or undermine an opponent, the exhibit is also a sobering reminder of human fallibility. “No matter how reliable and good” the original evidence is, Sappol notes, bumbling investigators sometimes contaminate a crime scene, and questions of accuracy can challenge test results. He adds, “It’s something a good defense lawyer can exploit.” MEMENTO MORI “Visible Proofs” tells the story of forensics through a series of artifacts, case histories, and short videos, both graphic and scientific. It’s designed, says Sappol, “to be evocative as well as educational.” The opening display provides the exhibit’s defining memento mori: A white sheet completely covers a human form lying on a white porcelain-and-steel autopsy table from the 1940s. (Sappol found the table on eBay.) For history buffs (and the ghoulishly inclined), there’s much more to see. The actual autopsy instruments used on President Abraham Lincoln lie next to a traveling kit that a 19th-century coroner might have carried with him. Nearby rest a row of human skulls, including one that belonged to a Civil War soldier killed by a bullet slicing through the front of his skull. Jars hold organs damaged by bullet holes and a stomach shriveled with arsenic poisoning. In another case is a small collection of antique bottles that once held arsenic, laudanum, and other toxic substances. One purpose of the NIH show is to demonstrate how medical professionals have developed new ways to examine the body. For instance, there’s a section on the 19th-century French researcher Alphonse Bertillon, who first developed a classification system for identifying suspected criminals based on their physical features (height, arm span, nose shape, and so on), used at the end of the 1800s. But forensic science was pressing forward rapidly, finding even more precise systems of identification. In 1892, an Argentinian anthropologist named Juan Vucetich became the first to use fingerprints to identify a criminal — in that case, a woman who had killed her two sons and then tried to pin the blame on someone else by slitting her own throat. There are devastating stories about identifying the dead, such as the 1980s investigation of mass murders in Argentina’s “Dirty War,” and poignant stories, such as the naming of the Vietnam War’s “Unknown Soldier,” Michael Blassie, in 1998. A local highlight of “Visible Proofs” is the tale of Kirk Bloodsworth, a crab fisherman from Maryland’s Eastern Shore. In 1993, he became the first death-row prisoner in the United States to be exonerated when DNA evidence proved his innocence. Bloodsworth, who spent two years on death row and eight years total in prison for the 1984 rape and murder of a 9-year-old girl, talks on video about what he had to do to prove his innocence. Although biological evidence was tested and found inconclusive at the time of his trial, DNA testing had advanced considerably by the early 1990s. With the help of his attorney Robert Morin, now a D.C. Superior Court judge, Bloodsworth pushed for DNA analysis of the semen left on the panties of the victim. The results showed that it could not have come from Bloodsworth. (In 2003, a convicted rapist named Kimberley Shay Ruffner was tried and found guilty of the murder.) DOLLHOUSE MAYHEM Sappol notes that visitors seem to enjoy the investigatory aspect of the NIH show — the whodunit or what-done-it. Not unlike the CSI techs, people can conduct a virtual autopsy, build the face of a suspect on a computer screen, fingerprint someone, or try to tell the difference between a male and a female pelvis. One of the most perversely enchanting do-it-yourself exhibits is “Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death” — a series of dioramas that look like little dollhouses until the viewer realizes that they depict murder and mayhem. They were created by New England heiress Frances Glessner Lee, one of the early proponents of what was then called “legal medicine.” Lee, who helped to establish the Department of Legal Medicine at Harvard in 1931, built 18 miniature dioramas based on real crime scenes in the 1940s and 1950s. Three are on display here — “kitchen crime scene,” “woodman’s shack crime scene,” and “barn crime scene.” The details are meticulous, from the delicate curtains in the kitchen windows to the tiny splatters of blood on floral wallpaper to the dead doll sprawled on the floor. Lee would regularly gather forensic experts and homicide detectives to train them in close observation. Participants were given 90 minutes to stare at the diorama and try to discern clues to the murder. Visitors can do the same today, although be warned: The answers aren’t provided. Some people still believe that dead men tell no tales. “Visible Proofs,” which runs until February 2008, offers a convincing counterargument. In death, says Sappol, “the body is inert, but it compels us to act.”
Debra Bruno can be reached at [email protected].

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